Interview with Brian Michael Bendis (January 2021)

To help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the site, I reached out to former DAREDEVIL writer Brian Michael Bendis for an interview to discuss his work at Marvel. We've tried over the years to organize this, so I'm glad we were able to work out some time this month to discuss his work with David Mack and Alex Maleev and many more talented creators. Many thanks to him for this opportunity.

This interview was conducted on a video call on January 13, 2021.

Bendis

Kuljit Mithra: We were talking about the site being twenty five years old—

Brian Michael Bendis: We're old.

Mithra: Yeah, we're old. When I started the site, I was still in university and a few years later Marvel Knights started up. I was trying to do a little timeline of when you started with Marvel, because I was looking at some of the things that you worked on and I even forgot about some of the things that were intertwined with some of the Daredevil stuff. You were asked to fill in on DAREDEVIL for "Wake Up" with David Mack, so that was the first work, right?

Bendis: Joe Quesada, who was one of my favorite artists, was running Marvel Knights before he was Editor-in-Chief and was making the kind of imprint I love. And he had met one of my best friends, David Mack, and they started collaborating together. I was good-heartedly jealous. Not that toxic jealousy, but, oh man, like for people like us who want to do mainstream work but we came from a special place in indy comics, and you want to retain your voice as you head into mainstream comics. And a lot of people sometimes are just not really given the opportunity to retain your voice or it's a gig that isn't a good match. But it just seemed that what Joe was doing and his attitude towards creators and what David was telling me about the collaboration, I was like, oh, I want to go there. I said to David, if there's a moment that's good, show him my shit. And he did and I got a call from Joe. We hit it off right away and it was nice and I've told this story many times, but the big takeaway from that first meeting was he asked me what I would want to do if I came to Marvel and I asked him what he needed an artist for. And dead silence, he was trying to hire me as a writer and he kind of hated my artwork, which was insulting and confusing. But I remember saying to my wife, well, he's either going to be the best boss because he's honest or he's just being insufferable. It ended up he was a good boss. And you want someone who's going to tell you you're doing well or you're fucking up, you want both things.

And and so we started talking about what we would do. And originally we were offered a Nick Fury prestige format mini-series that was going to be me and David Mack writing and with—.

Mithra: Bill Sienkiewicz.

Bendis: Right. It didn't come together, we had gotten [Jim] Steranko involved and it all just kind of fell apart. And I was like, oh man, I'm on the back of the line again because I had a couple of near misses with Marvel and DC over the last few years. And one was Spider-Woman, like things I really wanted to do that just wasn't going to happen. And every time it didn't happen, you kind of do feel like you get to the back of the line and there was a mixture of confusion around the Nick Fury thing and I could tell Joe was frustrated because we were working really well together, but that project got tainted.

I've been reminded, as I'm looking on the wall here, right there [pointing to wall of photos behind] is a Joe Quesada page from DAREDEVIL that has the first appearance of Echo in it and I'm in it. They go to the movies and I say something inappropriate about them talking too loud. Before I was even published by Marvel, I showed up in DAREDEVIL. So I was like, that's awesome, but I hope that's not my consolation prize.

And then Joe called up and said, you know, DAREDEVIL's one of our top books right now, but we are waaay off schedule. We cannot get back on schedule. Kevin Smith, I forget what movie he was working on, but it just was falling off the schedule. And Joe said, could you do me a favor and just take DAREDEVIL for a few months? You and David Mack, you guys go do your own Daredevil story and get us back on track. He kept saying that. "Could you do me that favor? It's sort of like a big favor." And could I do this thing I've always wanted to do with one of my best friends with the favor.

So that's where "Wake Up" came in. And I will say there was something in my heart that I was like, well, I'm just going to write for David as if it was one of our Image books. Just give everything I have and I know this isn't going to not look or sound anything like Daredevil or anything else that's going on right now. But that's what I always liked about Daredevil. Creators came in and brought their thunder. And so we'll try ours and we did.

People don't know this because ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN shipped first, but DAREDEVIL was what I was writing first. After "Wake Up" came out they said, well, why don't you take over the book? We're not sure when and if Kevin's coming back and do you want to take the book until Kevin comes back? That literally was the offer. And he never came back and it was an opportunity for me to reunite with Alex Maleev. Joe really liked us on SAM AND TWITCH together and said, "I want to reunite you guys on DAREDEVIL, I think that would just be amazing."

I had wanted a second chance at collaborating with Alex because I saw what I did wrong on SAM AND TWITCH. I wanted another shot at it. SAM AND TWITCH was like a rough draft sketch of us, just how we would work together, like we worked out all the kinks. So we started on DAREDEVIL. Issue 26, we hit the ground running. We knew each other and got to get the best work out of each other.

DD26

Mithra: Wow. So if Kevin had come back...

Bendis: Up until about issue 50, we're still thinking Kevin's coming back. And I remember when we took a break at 50 for David to come in and do his story, that's when we're like he's coming back to continue his run for another 30 years or so. But it was up until then that Kevin was coming back and then Kevin was coming back to do the Bullseye mini, and that's why we couldn't use Bullseye for most of our run, which I was happy about, because it stopped me from using Bullseye like everyone was using Bullseye. I was happy because when they take stuff away from you, you tend to get more creative. So I created more stuff because I wasn't using Bullseye. And then by the time we were able to use Bullseye, it gave me enough time to really think about what's the most badass Bullseye, what could under both those characters' skins and that's what we have. It was Joe who said the only thing that's really good in the DAREDEVIL movie is that [makes circle motion on his forehead, imitating Colin Farrell].

Mithra: [Laughs] So from "Underboss" to the end of "Hardcore", up until that point, did you have anything mapped out after that, like in your mind, what you wanted to do? Or was it all just waiting for Kevin to return?

Bendis: Yeah, I mean, I do this weird thing where I just plan for the biggest, most elaborate feast I can do and dive in and hope for the best. Also it's DAREDEVIL. I've been thinking about it like since I could read and DAREDEVIL's one of those books that a lot of my heroes didn't just work on, but they did their masterpiece on DAREDEVIL. Look at all these people that did this that made art out of this. And so don't mess it up, right? So what do you have to say? The cool part for me was that I came from a whole generation of creators that imitate Frank Miller, just do a Frank Miller cover band, and I was always so immersed in Frank's voice, but I knew not to do him, but you learn the lesson of him, which is to do us, right? The way he did him. And so to apply that directly to DAREDEVIL, I felt like I was doing my master's degree. It was a grand opportunity to prove that I would not imitate Frank Miller on DAREDEVIL.

Mithra: That was one of the questions I was going to ask you, as DAREDEVIL writers are always going to be compared to the legendary Frank Miller & Klaus Janson run. But I must say now, you know, twenty years later, people are saying that for your run as well. I'm not trying to make you feel old again. [laughs]

Bendis: I know, it's very nice. This has been one of the few cup half-full things about the pandemic, because the people are really alone with their books, alone in the room with their stuff and their stories and a lot of people re-reading or re-bingeing or, "oh, I always meant to read that Bendis/Maleev DAREDEVIL run". I'm grateful that they're aging well. Because it's hard to describe... you are in the moment, you're trying to write the best you can or you don't know what reference is or what not is going to engage. I think my worst reference in DAREDEVIL is an Opie and Anthony reference that I'm mad about for like five different reasons. But you can skip it, it's not necessary to the plot. It's just there. Anyway, I love that people are enjoying it, that it's aging well and that people still see it as something worth reading.

Mithra: On your run with Alex Maleev, I did want to ask... what is it about the collaboration with him that makes it work, that you always want to work with him? Are you writing a script and then he takes it away to draw or are you telling him like panel-wise what to do or...?

Bendis: Well, it's a mixture of things. It's hard to describe. It's very similar to bands that play together. You're like, wow, I'm really in tune with you. Like when the Beatles were together and then Ringo sat down and, OK, this is better with Ringo. Like you don't even know why, but well, this is what it's supposed to sound like. And when I hear people tell stories like that, I know that feeling that it's hard to describe in words. But first of all, I very clearly remember being given Alex's work on some mini-series for IDW or Kitchen Sink or something. And it was just like, well, there's this guy drawing exactly how I wish I was drawing like. I was attempting to get to that and I got as close as I could, but, boy, if I really was talented, I'd be drawing like Alex.

Then I said I would love to write for this guy. And we had been commissioned to do a Crow mini-series together and that ended up not happening, probably for the best. I remember not having a very inspired idea and we weren't so into the Crow, we just wanted to work together and then it didn't happen.

But SAM AND TWITCH did. It was in those issues that we really kind of discovered each other. It's weird because there's nothing about us that's similar. We're very different people. People have met us. We're very different. Our energies are very different.

But I deeply love this man and we completely get each other. We're working on CHECKMATE at DC, trying to inspire the next level of what we can do and also working on another creative project. I said to David last night, I'm so fucking happy that our creative marriages are so strong. We really can push them and inspire each other. And it never gets lazy.

For SAM AND TWITCH, I was still discovering myself as a writer. I come from a world where I was writing and drawing everything myself. So I actually didn't know where the writing ended. I actually didn't know how to stop writing, so I would draw the pages out. As part of the writing. I would do elaborate thumbnails. I was creatively stifling my collaborators on ALIAS and ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and it wasn't helping them along, I was actually trying to puppeteer everything, so I stopped with that.

At the same time I had left SAM AND TWITCH (and by left I mean I was fired off SAM AND TWITCH), Todd [McFarlane] took over writing, and Alex told me that it went from my full scripts with layouts to Todd picking up the phone and telling him the script on the phone. So it was like three pages of "a gun fight, then they make love." He would just tell him like the big beats of it. So it was like the Marvel style. I would see Alex's finished product on those pages and realize they were actually better than what I was getting out of him with my full script and my layouts. And that's when I got it. I needed to work with Alex one more time, the turn to give him what he deserves. And then Joe said, Daredevil, I'm like, yes. So that's how it all came to be.

Mithra: That's amazing. From the different arcs you can also see Alex is trying to do different things as well, like the Golden Age arc, the Decalogue story, even Murdock Papers at the end, there's a different style for each story. Was he doing that on purpose?

Bendis: We were talking about all the subgenres, the subgenre of Daredevil and all the places we could take it. And also, Alex has that cool noir thing that he does. Right. But there's also like four or five other voices within his range that I would say, well, that's what we're going to find a place to do all of the things that you do within DAREDEVIL. And that was what we did.

Mithra: Whenever he posts any Daredevil art on Twitter, it's crazy, everybody just goes crazy.

Bendis: It's like twenty five years and it still gives me chills. And I love his Superman and Spider-Man.

Mithra: You were saying how you were a little bit different than him... I've met him a couple of times at the Toronto shows, and he's not the most talkative person in the world. I felt intimidated talking to him, even just going, hey, I'm this guy who runs this site and love your work and all that stuff. But he comes across as a very serious guy.

Bendis: He's serious, but he's also a big giant goofball. I mean, you can't be friends with me and be very serious all the time. But I mean, we come from completely different parts of the world, like really physically come from different planets. He grew up in Bulgaria under a very harsh regime. I grew up in Cleveland with no regime. And so, yeah, very different. But together, there it is.

DDNINJA

Mithra: I was talking about the timelines and so "Wake Up" happened and then DAREDEVIL: NINJA happened before issue 26. I know you don't like talking about it.

Bendis: No, I talk about it, it's just... it's just a failure. And I don't mind talking about failures. As a teacher I talk about failure all the time in my class. I will talk to you endlessly. But what I don't like doing is making people feel bad for buying it because people did and some people really, really like it. And I don't want to take away their joy because I shouldn't. I do like DAREDEVIL: NINJA and I would like to do more things like it, there was a point to it, but the collaboration didn't click [with artist Rob Haynes]. Which was sad because the guy was really into Daredevil, we just weren't meant for each other and he didn't like my scripts and he didn't know that Joe liked my script so much that he had offered me to take over Marvel Knights as an editor as long as he became Editor-in-Chief. They asked if I wanted to become the head of Marvel Knights. And I was obviously blown away to the point of emotional because after so many false starts at Marvel, you know, sometimes it's hard to know if you're doing well. It's really hard to know. And it's a very fine line between doing well and not. There are times you kind of figure out if they offer you more work, then you're doing well and being offered a job at Marvel was a dream come true and I turned it down because no matter how great the job is, it's still the job where we had to put on pants and go to work. And the whole point of being a comic creator is so you can wear sweat pants and not go to work. So I'm wearing pants right now. But anyway, that didn't work out.

Mithra: So NINJA finished around 20 years ago, I think March of 2001 and then issue 26 later on in 2001. It's twenty years since the main run now.

Bendis: What I was doing with David and what I was doing with Alex was going to have a certain tone to it, a very noir kind of Scorsese tone to it. And I also wanted to pursue the swashbuckler part of Daredevil's past. I wanted to do a Jackie Chan movie starring Daredevil. I'm a big Jackie Chan fan and I just saw a lot of connection between the characters he plays and Matt Murdock. And I thought, is there a way to do a fun story? At one time, I thought the idea would be to do the very serious epic saga and then every year do an aside Daredevil series that would have a different flavor. I hate to say lighter but lighter than the darkest thing ever. I guess. That was the plan. But it wasn't meant to be. But again, if anything, when something like that doesn't work out, it only empowers me more to do better for the character in other places. I'm not trying to poo poo another artist or anything like that, it's just like I know I always look at it like if I wrote a script and it didn't connect, that's my fault.

Mithra: Through all this you also wrote ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and then you also did the TEAM-UP series with a lot of these creators that you grew up reading. So how is that to work on something with these people that you admire and then try to come up with something where you don't want to show them you're some newbie guy writing for Marvel?

Bendis: You can't act like a newbie guy. I've had this grand opportunity quite a few times with Sienkiewicz or Walt Simonson or working with Alan Davis, that was a big one for me. But Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz are very, very important people in our lives.

ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP was "wow, things are going really well on ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. What would you like to do?" You realize that's a kind of a golden ticket. You get them once in a while if you're lucky and it's a real privileged place, but they're basically saying you've got to go and take it. What would you like to do with it? And I said, well, I would like to do MARVEL FANFARE and MARVEL TEAM-UP. And that became ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP.

Basically, we do a series that not only exposed and expresses the characters on who they are, which is what the Ultimate line was about, but let's do a series that's also about what comics can do that you can't get anywhere else like that's still full of voices that express to this potential new audience of comics that, oh, you know what else we got? We've got Bill Sienkiewicz, we got Matt Wagner, we got a line of creators and also selfishly, my opportunity to, like, call all my heroes. I would ask them, "would you like to do this with us and you get to pick the other character with Spider-Man." I called Bill. So I said "Spider-Man and?" Daredevil and the Punisher. Done. So then we started formatting what would be the Ultimate Daredevil storyline that really did see almost all the way through ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN for most of my run. I kept going back to those the warriors, the street level heroes that that I think are a big part of Spider-Man. It was amazing. My heroes delivering and just kicking ass and was really, really special.

The other big moment was DAREDEVIL: END OF DAYS, which was a huge deal for me and David. Not to talk out of school, but Klaus and Bill both expressed that this was the most fun they've ever had in comics on it. And that meant so much, it's hard to express. And to answer your first question, it's really special to work with your heroes and it's almost hard to define. And I'm very Zen about it while it's happening and just trying to do my best work, but I will have these moments where I've been listening to a podcast and there'll be like David Grohl from the Foo Fighters talking at great length about, "oh, my god, I just recorded with Paul McCartney" and describing that feeling. And then I will get emotional. I know this feeling. Walt Simonson gave me this feeling. He stopped what he was doing and worked with me. That's an amazing thing. It's very special and never goes away.

Sometimes it's hard for me to see myself as an older creator with some years behind me, even though we're talking about twenty five years and twenty years. So I know it's true, but in your heart, you still see yourself trying to figure it out and every project is a thing. But then you also have to realize, oh, that's how some people see me and I have to act accordingly. I think I made a joke about it. But one of the creators I'm working with right now, when we started working together said "I read HOUSE OF M in high school, that shit was the bomb." And then I went, oh, I'm so old. But I was thankful.

UMTU

Mithra: I feel that way when people describe comics from the 80s as vintage, it's like, what are you talking about? And then I realized, yeah, that's over thirty years ago. Vintage.

Bendis: This is where having little kids is a grand help because they really let you know what they think is old. My daughter loves shark attack movies. I'm like, oh, let's watch JAWS. And I showed her the trailer and she said "that might be too old for me."

Mithra: I can't even get my family to watch DAREDEVIL. They have zero interest in it. [laughs]

Bendis: But I will say, as we're here celebrating your site and you know this to be true and again, it's hard to describe to people looking at the Internet right now because the Internet is very different than it was twenty years ago. Very different. Feels different. How you got research, different everything. And your website was a godsend. Your website was just everything you need to know right in one place. You know, Wikipedia's a mess. You've got facts. And it was so helpful to me and to other creators over the years. I know it for a fact. So, thank you.

Mithra: Thank you.

Bendis: And it's one of those things I love about comics is that fans run the ultimate sites on a lot of these characters, like if you really want to find the good stuff, that's where you go.

How do you feel these days? Daredevil is everywhere and maybe Daredevil is in this movie, maybe that movie. It's pretty amazing.

Mithra: Yeah. Like, just imagine when I started the site, there was just like hints of things—

Bendis: Maybe there's going to be a video game, that's all we had. Remember that? Oh, by the way, I did play that Daredevil video game that never got released.

Mithra: You played it?

Bendis: I got to play for, like, five minutes in the office. He was pink, like there something was off with the lighting and the color effects were funny because he just looked very, very, very pink. [laughs]

Mithra: Interesting. Did you like the movie?

Bendis: The original 2003 movie, no, but I also had the weirdest experience where I had read drafts of the script that were far superior to that movie. So when I saw the movie, I was asking what happened to the thing that I read that was much better. Even the Daredevil/Bullseye/Elektra fight on the street read really well. And it just didn't play very well.

Mithra: Around that time, Mark Steven Johnson got in touch with me through the site and just said, hey, do you want to see some storyboards? So he sent me four storyboards that he had commissioned. If they had made that, I think it probably would have been more successful. I think when that first Spider-Man movie came out, they just thought let's add some more CGI and all this other stuff and make it like that.

Bendis: I have mixed feelings about it because I remember thinking I'm just happy there was a Daredevil movie. I'm sure you went through this phase as well. Like there's a Daredevil movie. Let's just celebrate. By the time the movie came out, I had done enough good Daredevil work where they included me in the shout outs which wasn't in the script that I had read. So when I saw the movie and I got a shout out that was very sweet.

Enough time has gone by that I feel the Daredevil movie made the Daredevil TV show better. Does that make sense? Just like everyone working on that show was kind of was doubly inspired to bring the real stuff.

Mithra: Let's switch it up now and go to other side of the timeline. What interested you in doing THE DEFENDERS?

Bendis: One of the reasons I wanted to do the series was that I was very aware that I was twenty years more mature. Different person, different writer. I knew I was a better writer, so I wanted to go back to the character but not go back to the Daredevil series. But it seemed like there was a way to really see what my connection to Matt Murdock still was like, but without repeating myself and Jessica Jones as well. And I was very excited to try it out, but it was funny because it was kind of what started the DC conversation. When I started talking to Dan DiDio, he got a hold of me and goes, "we've been waiting for you to come over here for ten years and you're doing Daredevil again! Just do Batman!" [laughs]

Mithra: [Laughs] So I have to ask you about Ronin as well. He was supposed to be Daredevil, right?

Bendis: No. We were discussing it. We were talking about it. But no, this was the story that was going to be. We wanted it... if these things are all fluid, like I know there was talk like someone thought they guessed Daredevil, so we changed it. And we may have goofed around about that. But no. And also, if you remember where the Daredevil story was in our run at the time, he was very much the king of Hell's Kitchen and not in a position to go "And I'm hanging out with Cap!". There was something there. There was a germ of an idea that could have been there at one point. But I never wrote the words in a script [whispers] "and it's really Daredevil".

Mithra: Okay, so that story about some artwork that was released and you had revealed that in confidence to some website and they released it. So none of that's true?

Ronin

Bendis: No, I mean, there was a fishbowl version of the character, right. There was the Ronin that had a fishbowl head at one point. It was being developed in public.

Mithra: Yeah, I remember something like that.

Bendis: There was something. Well also we were doing a lot of stuff back then when we were fucking with people. [laughs]

Mithra: Before we go, I just wanted to say thank you for the interview and that you actually remembered me. [laughs] But I really wanted to say thank you also for that shout out that you gave me. I opened up that final issue and there was my name. And so that was very nice of you. I'll always remember that.

Bendis: Aw, thank you. You know, I just tried to actually to do that with the Superman folks, too, and we couldn't get it done during a pandemic. But I know that how that feels. So, yeah, I know how it feels. [points at art on wall again] All of a sudden you see yourself in the book and you're like, "WHAAAT?", so, my pleasure.

Bendis: Did you have one last question? I know you have a lot of questions about Squirrel Girl and Daredevil's relationship [laughs] and I'm sure that was a big part of your list of questions here.

Mithra: How about this really heavy question before you go. What do you really think about Matt Murdock? Is he really a good person or not?

Bendis: He's a great person. I think he's a great person. I have a deep love and empathy for Matt Murdock.

Mithra: So even if he treats all of his friends in the worst way or...

Bendis: He's a complicated person. But he's been through a lot, you know, and also he's not real, so we can empathize a little more than we would with toxic people in the real world. But I think what I love about him is how complicated his psyche is and how unique he is to not only fiction, but pop culture. I mean, there's nobody like him. There really isn't even in the street level characters. He is very unique. And I've written a lot of them. Really, I have taken this for a ride, he is very unique and special.

And going back to earlier, when I hopped on DAREDEVIL, I told myself, don't do Frank Miller. I went back to the roots. I went back to those early issues, where it is very much a pulp comic. It is in a superhero comic. It is a pulp hero comic, a pulp hero comic that had a different language to them than the superheroes. And it was built that way up until John Romita hopped on board. Right. But those first few issues were very pulpy. And I thought, well, let's do modern pulp. And and with that, there is the connection to the past and the truth of Matt Murdock. I also think I lucked out because I got to write Matt Murdock in a time where broken men were very dejour in pop culture, Tony Soprano, like there was a wave of broken people and Matt Murdock was the most of that in all of comics. It was always a great way to see how deep we could go with him.

Mithra: I always think sometimes the comic really shouldn't even be called DAREDEVIL. It should just be called Matt Murdock. Like he's his own big character and then also in that costume, he's another character. Pretty much the same guy, but they're acting sometimes different and now there's a different Daredevil with—

Bendis: Spoilers!

Mithra: Well, most people should know by now if they're on my website. [laughs]

Bendis: That's right. Get off his website people! Yeah, you're totally right. That's awesome.

Mithra: Thank you again for the interview. I was messaging David as well a few weeks ago about Echo appearing in HAWKEYE. Yourself, David, Joe, Jimmy, all of the creators when I first started my site, have always been so nice supporting it.

Bendis: You think we are supporting you and we feel supported by you, but like I feel you supported us. So you have to own that a little bit. We'll talk soon. I'll see you online.

Mithra: All right. Thanks a lot.

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(c) 2021 Kuljit Mithra & Brian Michael Bendis
Daredevil: The Man Without Fear
http://www.manwithoutfear.com
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